Numbers don’t lie. Or shouldn’t. Like everything else, numbers can become a rhetorical device of deception, the subtle instrument of a cunning persuasion. There is something Machiavellic about numerical constructions. Especially in mathematical equations which too often we mistake as the simple establishment of an identity between two terms.
Modern economics -that so much resembles what Marx used to call the ‘vulgar economy’- seems to feed on this confusion, generating what it is a paradoxical relative objectivity.
Frederick Jameson, in his Representing Capital, asserts that Capital could be seen, among other things, as an attempt to resolve the “riddle of the equation.” In other words: if we are all good people who exchange commodities or sell them (i.e. exchanging them for money) for a reciprocal benefit, if we buy and sell according to fair laws, how is it possible to make profit out of an exchange?
If we pay the right amount of money, if we give something to receiving something in return as an equal and fair counterpart, how is it possible for someone to gain any wealth through this simple operation? There is of course some sort of mystification at work disguised by the technicality of modern economic theory. The numbers contribute to entrench the riddle of the equation behind a protective wall.
True, numbers are not something that can just be blotted out as a mere sophisticated abstraction. Numbers count, in every sense. However, the way in which numbers are raised to a mysterious oracle that only few dedicated experts can address is nothing but a political choice to describe reality in a certain way rather than in another.
In their aseptic and dry nature, numbers describe like words, are supported by words and, more importantly by the same token they may support words. In the basic riddle of the exchange there is an entire dialectical tension between words and numbers, between empiricism and aesthetic representation of the world.
Economy is also the result of the negotiation between reality and its representation, world and its understanding. The meaning of the exchange, of the equation, is also the revelation of our way of intending the history of social relationships, and the way the individual enters the totality of the empirical world. Economy is, after all, as the word itself say, the law of living, of the dwelling in the world, of inhabiting nature (nomos-law and oikos, to inhabit).
Numbers expunge from economy this inner meaning of dwelling. The Dasein dimension of the subject, to use Heidegger’s language, is erased. The variable x of the existence is assimilated in the calculus of algebraic variables who are nevertheless presented to us as something ineluctably given.
The relative objectivity of a certain representation of the world is due to the ambiguity of the formulation of certain problems: there is a state of things that in order to be managed needs to be reduced to algebraic formulas capable not so much of explaining the current states of things, but to predict and steer the current state of things in the most convenient direction for its own survival, reproduction, and expansion.
The objective certainty of numbers is relative to the number and nature of the variable. The more complex the equation becomes, the easier it is to keep the average subject outside the understanding of the equation itself. An exclusion which is not only intellectual, but existential, being grounded in the obliteration of the x variable of the human existence, of its dwelling, of is oikos. The search for the nomos, for the the law, excludes the empirical in favor of its reflexive counterpart.
This is a subtle Hegelian pattern that enables and entitles the minority of the specialists to detain the authority over the numbers, to turn the real into an algebraic manipulation. Despite the phenomenology and the deconstructive drift of the 20th century, we still live in an elitist Hegelian culture where the self-awareness of a minority determines the universal picture of the world, of its history and of its social relations.
The “x” factor of Marx critique is the element of the human being, of that “variable capital” constantly subjected to exploitation in the name of a progress that benefits only the blessed self-conscious subjects of the higher level of society. The “x” is to Marx the secret of value, of what the time of human existence instills in every product of our life. The “x” is the place inhabited but the anonymous subject who does not detain the self-awareness of the ruling class.
The Machaivellic strategy of numbers, that turns reality into an objective order of relative equations, aims at obscuring the persistence of the human factor into the equations that govern oikonomia of both the private house and the global market.
To go back to the original question: how is in this context possible an equal exchange? How can someone make profit out of an equation? Out of a fair exchange of values? The answer is all in the constant repression of the “x;” of the human presence in everything that life produces. After all, we are said, it is all a matter of making numbers balancing out. Take what makes your balance safely return to zero and don’t ask too many questions. Some self-aware technocrats are certainly better at counting and mystifying the objective existence with the cloak of relative factors of an increasingly more complex algebra.
The objectivity of the equations ruling the world is relative to those who formulated them. We are left with the “x.” The problem of value, of what in practice, and not in theory bestows over anything a social and, in Arstotelic terms, oikos-nomica significance. It is from the paradox of the zero and of the “x” that everything should start again.